At this year’s Emmys, host Neil Patrick Harris lamented the decline of the TV theme song; listening to the classic curtain-raiser for The Patty Duke Show, it’s easy to join his cause. In less than a minute, the series’ whole nutty premise gets a catchy rundown: There’s this sophisticated Scottish girl named Cathy, who likes ballet and French cuisine; there’s this down-to-earth New York girl named Patty, who likes rock ’n’ roll and franks ’n’ beans. The twist? They’re identical cousins! Who wouldn’t want to see what kind of wacky hijinks this mismatched crazy pair will get into?
But here’s the thing about The Patty Duke Show: It wasn’t that wacky. For three seasons and 104 episodes—from 1963 to 1966—teen star Patty Duke played the prim Cathy and her brash look-alike, and though the show often found a way to work their resemblance into the plot, the average episode was more about dating, after-school jobs, and high-school crises. And unlike the average suburban/small-town sitcom, The Patty Duke Show was set in Brooklyn Heights, and had a little more urban bustle and sophistication. The show could be corny, sentimental, even silly, but it also had something to say about what it meant to be a teenager in an era when youth culture was booming. (Not coincidentally, The Patty Duke Show’s co-creator, William Asher, went on to work on Gidget, arguably the greatest TV series about ’60s adolescence.)
In an interview on The Patty Duke Show’s first-season DVD set, Duke claims that writer-producer Sidney Sheldon must’ve recognized something about her personality that others missed, given that two decades later, she’d be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That’s a little heavy for a show so light, but it is remarkable how easy it is to tell Patty and Cathy apart, beyond the slight differences in hairstyle, clothes, and accent. One’s the kind of demure, perfect teen who pops up in an educational film; the other’s a boys/dancing/soda-loving girl straight from an Archie comic. Yet neither feels fully rounded without the other. Intentionally or not, The Patty Duke Show plays like a dialectic, arguing back and forth about how a young lady should behave in ’60s America. And it’s still a showcase for its star, who invested both her parts with a rare magnetism. The reason to watch the show now is the same reason people watched it in 1963: double the Duke.
Key features: A 15-minute “look back,” with warmly nostalgic cast interviews.